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Brandeis, take the leap: address sexual assault

Published: February 8, 2013
Section: Opinions


When I look back at my days at Brandeis, I remember the good things. I remember hanging out with my friends, scoffing at Pachanga and attending really fantastic lectures.

What I don’t remember is sexual assault.

Part of this is because I was never assaulted at Brandeis, but the other reason is that it simply is not talked about that much. Sure, Brandeis has S.T.A.R. and the Brandeis Counseling and Rape Crisis Hotline, but these are anonymous organizations, meaning they do not publicize it when they receive a call. And that is good, because victims need a safe place. The problem is, though, that we rarely hear about sexual assault on campus.

And I cannot believe that we rarely hear about it because it does not happen at a wonderland like Brandeis. As much as we may joke that Brandeis is awkward and throws crappy parties, we all know that Brandeis is very much like other universities. Brandeis students throw parties—whether they are crappy or not; they drink excessive amounts of alcohol on occasion—thank you Pachanga; and they make stupid decisions, because that is what young adults do.

Don’t kid yourself, Brandeis is just like other schools. Just because you are not hearing about rape and sexual assault does not mean Brandeis does not have those problems.

That point was driven home last week when The Hoot published an article titled “Brandeis Greek life urges members not to discuss alleged sexual assault.” According to the article, a girl reported that she was raped and police and university officials are currently investigating. Regardless of the outcome—whether she was raped or not, whether they find the evidence needed to do something—this should not be swept under the rug, by anyone, especially in the administration.

Universities have a long history of keeping these things quiet. Amherst College students were shaken out of their complacency last October when a former student, Angie Epifano, wrote a scathing 5,000-word column blasting the school for how they treated her after she was allegedly raped by a fellow student. She detailed the university’s response when she told them. According to Epifano’s column in The Amherst Student, after going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor, she was basically told: “No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup … You should forgive and forget.”

The college blocked her at every turn. They shut her up in a psychiatric ward while her alleged attacker continued to attend classes; they refused to let her back on campus at first, telling her she needed parental supervision, even though she no longer had parents around; they even tried to keep her from dropping out, a choice that ended up making her much happier—though not healed. The school placed stumbling block after stumbling block in front of Epifano until she just could not take it anymore and gave up. And then they had the audacity to question why she would give up.

Amherst is not alone in this. According to a Feb. 4 Boston Globe article, colleges often underreport sexual assaults. Either students feel intimidated not to report the crime in the first place or, once they do report it, the schools treat them like pariahs and seem more interested in preventing ripples than in protecting students.

Last April, The Hoot published an article titled “Alleged rape case at Brandeis casts doubts on assault policy effectiveness.” This article detailed a he-said, she-said case of alleged rape at Brandeis; the case involves an undergraduate female student and male Heller School student. Like Epifano, the unidentified alleged victim ended up leaving Brandeis; she took indefinite medical leave and her alleged assailant graduated and received his degree.

“The school was more interested in protecting its image than removing the hostile environment for me. They were afraid of being sued [by my alleged assailant],” the alleged victim said in the April article. “I think they did not care about my safety at all.”

Since the Epifano column printed in The Amherst Student, Amherst has responded by forming a special oversight committee, according to the Feb. 4 Globe article, to review school policies and make recommendations to help the college prevent and address sexual assaults. The committee has suggested that the school better train staff and faculty to deal with these issues, and that the school make mental health services more accessible. They also recommended that students be required to take a course focusing on respecting the sexual boundaries of their peers.

I am loathe to suggest that Brandeis form another committee—like the Strategic Planning one, which has been meeting for a while now and yet I still have no idea what exactly it is supposed to be doing—but perhaps Brandeis should re-evaluate their policies and past handlings of cases of alleged sexual assault.

This is not to say that Brandeis handles these things worse than other schools, but there can always be improvement. Brandeis did make a great stride when they took cases of alleged sexual assault away from the student conduct board and placed them squarely in a special examiner’s lap. Now, as of summer 2012, according to the 2012 Rights and Responsibilities handbook: “The Special Examiner will conduct an investigation and prepare a report of their findings at the conclusion of the Fact-Finding Phase that is submitted to the Dean of Student Life in support of the Outcome Phase of the process.”

This is a good first step, but I think the university can take more. Sexual assault should not be something we are afraid to talk about. Raising awareness and letting people know that these things do happen at Brandeis and that the university will take care of people who are assaulted will help encourage victims to step forward and it will make this university a less tolerable place for rapists.

Brandeis, I really think you are trying and it is sad that it takes a report of rape to spur any action, but at least now people are talking about it. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste. Protect your students and lead the way for other universities; become a role model.

Yael Katzwer ’12, formerly The Hoot’s managing editor, is currently the managing editor of two weekly newspapers in New Jersey: the West Orange Chronicle and the News-Record of Maplewood & South Orange.